On Thursday, August 8, 2019, reports of a nuclear explosion in northern Russia began to circulate. The explosion occurred at the Nynoska naval weapons range. This range is located on the White Sea coast and is known as a naval ballistic missile engine and cruise missile test site. There have also been reports that the explosion may have occurred on the White Sea itself, onboard a test barge close to the shore. While limited official information has been released about the nuclear Russian missile facility explosion, the incident raises a multitude of concerns. From contamination issues, to the development of long-distance nuclear missiles, these concerns have local, regional, and global reaches.
As more information and data are being collected on the developing situation, media is concluding that a liquid-propelled rocket engine exploded. According to the Defense Ministry, “the cause of the accident was an explosion while testing a liquid propulsion system, and the explosion triggered a fire.” Meanwhile, US intelligence officials, have deduced the “explosion involved a prototype of the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, a kind of doomsday missile that NATO refers to as SSC-X-9 Skyfall. Several experts have arrived at the same conclusion.” Skyfall is Russia’s attempt at designing a nuclear-powered cruise missile. Due to its nuclear power source, this missile would theoretically have unlimited range. Putin has also claimed that the missile will have an unpredictable trajectory, giving it the capability to circumvent US intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) defense systems which rely on trajectory prediction.
Image 1.1 Rosatom Headquarters at Bolshaya Ordynka Street in Moscow
Rosatom, the company behind Russia’s state sponsored nuclear endeavors, lost at least seven scientists in the incident. Most sources have cited five scientists perished as a result of the explosion, which threw some workers into the water. Based on the source, the number of workers transported to Moscow for treatment varies from two to three personnel. The victims transported for treatment also perished due to radiation illness. This event caused growing concern in Moscow, especially among hospital employees that helped treat the victims. They raised concerns over potentially improper precautions and high radiation levels in soiled scrubs worn by the treatment staff. These fears are compounded by the fact that Russia has not mentioned the isotopes that were involved in the explosion.
Post-explosion, waters in the region have been closed to civilian maritime travel for the next month. Civilian vessels on the Dvina River Basin and in the White Sea have been informed that all waters north of Nynoska are closed off to shipping. These water closures may be to limit exposure to contaminated water and land, to facilitate the recovery of classified missile parts, or to aid in clean-up and recovery efforts. Meanwhile, regional residents have been taking their own precautions. These precautions include staying indoors, washing hands more frequently with soap and water, taking iodine tablets, and treating water with iodine. Although the military testing site is closed to outsiders, the village of Nynoska sits 1 km from the naval test site boundary and 3 km from the closed shoreline. Severodvinsk and Arkhangelsk are the next two cities closest to the explosion site. With a population of approximately 185,000 people, Severodvinsk is about 25km northwest of Nynoska, and Arkhangelsk is about 60 km east of the explosion site. The explosion tripped radiation meters in both Severodvinsk and Arkhangelsk. Residents in the region are left worrying about initial radiation exposure, in addition to long term radiation exposure and food and water contamination.
Image 1.2 Map of Nynoska explosion site (red),waters north of the site now closed to shipping for a month (green), Severodvinsk (purple), and Arkhangelsk (blue).
Russia has a history of presenting limited, skewed, or delayed information concerning disasters and emergency incidents. While it is understandable to have some concerns, this reputation has caused increased local, regional, and global concern. The incident timeline shows a delay in the release of information on the part of Russia. When the explosion was initially reported, there was no mention of radioactive isotopes. It was not until victims with radiation illness were transported for treatment that the state admitted the nuclear component of the incident. Even though the radiation levels averted international detection, the victims were transported in ambulances and flights and received by medical personnel that were outfitted for hazmat and nuclear response. Furthermore, the timeline illustrates the removal of negative information from media outlets. The secrecy, confusion, and delay surrounding the release of state information concerning this most recent nuclear explosion, swiftly brings back memories like those of the delayed announcement and evacuation that occurred as part of the Chernobyl disaster in April of 1986.
Another major concern surrounds the mysterious signal loss of radiological transmitters in the area. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) is an independent body that monitors the globe for nuclear weapons testing violations in an effort to help ensure countries adhere to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In order to fulfill this task, the organization manages over 300 monitoring stations located around the globe. According to the CTBTO, “there are four Russia-based nuclear monitoring stations which have mysteriously stopped transmitting data following the explosion.” Less than two days after the explosion, the radionuclide stations Dubna and Kirovstopped transmitting data to the CTBTO. As per protocol, the CTBTO made contact with Station Operators as soon as the problem was discovered. The Station Operators did return communication, citing communication and networking issues. The CTBTO then reported on August 13, 2019, that two additional arctic Russian stations had stopped transmitting data as well. The CTBTO reported they would continue to reach out to Russian collaborators in efforts to resume data transmission as soon as possible.
Due to its close proximity, Norway implemented increased monitoring after the explosion, but it has yet to detect any abnormalities. Moreover, it is unlikely that Finland will detect abnormalities either due to the presence of southerly winds and a greater distance to the Russian border and explosion site. Regardless, the drop in data transmission from nuclear monitoring stations in the area in conjunction with a nuclear explosion is both suspicious and alarming.
Image 1.3 Map illustrating explosion site in proximity to neighboring countries
The details surrounding this explosion of a small Russian nuclear reactor or nuclear propellant, highlight a topic of great weight considering the history between the United States of America and Russia. A growing number of military and weapons development incidents contributes to the idea of a renewed arms race between the two counties. The secrecy and potential for a new arms race has left residents of both countries on edge. It is also feared that the result of an escalating arms race will be more nuclear accidents and increased accident frequency. The Skyfall missile was last in the limelight in March 2019 when, according to US intelligence sources, the new weapons had not flown further than 22 miles. It is predicted that the system will take years to develop to maximum potential, however, this event solidifies the continuation of Russian nuclear weapons development. Moreover, Skyfall is not the only nuclear-powered weapons system under development in Russia. A nuclear-powered Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle and the RS-28 Sarmat ICBM are other weapons systems being developed. Along with these systems, Putin has made claims that the Sarmat, like Skyfall, is designed to defeat US missile defense systems via speed advantage.
Another statement made by this particular incident is that the era of diplomatic arms control treaties is over. The fact that the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) on August 2, 2019, a treaty which limited missile ranges, combined with this incident confirming Russian long-range nuclear weapons development, supports the idea of arms control treaties being a thing of the past. In 2021, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (STAR Treaty) between the US and Russia will expire if not renewed. While the treaty does not include new nuclear-powered weapons like Skyfall, it will be interesting to see if the STAR Treaty is abandoned or maintained.
Image 1.4 Map illustrating three major military accidents within 45 day of one another in Russia. The site of the most recent nuclear explosion, Nynoska is marked in purple. The site of an armory explosion earlier that same week, Krasnoyark, is marked in orange. The approximate site of a nuclear submarine incident near Severomorsk, is marked in blue.
It is also notable that the Nenoska explosion marks the second major military accident within a week and the third major incident within a short period of time for Russia. The first incident of the week was when a series of blasts occurred at an arms depot located on a military base in Siberia on Monday, August 5, 2019. The blast killed one individual, injured 13 others, and resulted in the evaluation of 16,500 people from their homes. As a result of the explosions and fire, a state of emergency was declared in the area, located west of Krasnoyarsk. Additionally, on July 1, 2019, in Russian territorial waters off the Kola Peninsula near Severomorsk, 14 soldiers died aboard a special missions nuclear submarine from inhaling combustion fumes. The frequency, impact, and nature of these incidents are all cause for concern.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) works to detect, deter, and defeat terrorism around the world. Purposefully investigating, analyzing, and addressing developments and the subsequent global impacts surrounding hazards, such as nuclear explosions, will provide CTG with information needed to identify threats and areas of vulnerability and concern. Using this process, the CTG Hazards Team can progress toward defeating terrorism by helping predict, prepare for, and lessen the negative impacts of global hazards. Lessening the impact of global hazards will decrease the availability of exploitable circumstances for terrorists and terrorist groups. The CTG Hazards Team is currently tracking all aspects of nuclear and military incidents in Russia and around the globe. The Hazards team is also working in collaboration with the EUCOM and the Weapons and Tactics Teams to actively stay abreast of hazardous developments in Russia as well as escalating weapons developments around the world. Please do not hesitate to contact us with any information or questions.
1. Nuclear fuel carrier “Serebryanka” remains inside closed-off waters near missile explosion site, The Barents Observer, August 9, 2019, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2019/08/severodvinsk-authorities-confirm-mysterious-brief-radiation-spike-after-missile#.XU16pNlNtqg.twitter
2. Nuclear fuel carrier “Serebryanka” remains inside closed-off waters near missile explosion site, The Barents Observer, August 9, 2019, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2019/08/severodvinsk-authorities-confirm-mysterious-brief-radiation-spike-after-missile#.XU16pNlNtqg.twitter
3. The blast that killed 5 Russian engineers was apparently caused by another failed test of Putin's doomsday missile, Business Insider, August 12, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/failed-test-of-putins-new-missile-may-have-caused-explosion-2019-8
4. A Nuclear Accident at a Russian Missile Facility Killed 7 People, VICE, August 12, 2019, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/bjw8kv/a-nuclear-accident-in-russia-may-have-been-a-nuclear-powered-missile-test
5. In Russia, After the Radiation Came the Rumors, The New York Times, August 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/16/world/europe/russia-nuclear-radiation-rumors.html
6. Russia nuclear accident: Why have four nuclear stations gone eerily quiet after explosion?, EXPRESS, August 22, 2019, https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1167731/russia-nuclear-explosion-accident-Burevestnik-missile-skyfall-nuclear-stations-data
7. Russia Says Small Nuclear Reactor Blew Up in Deadly Accident, TIME, August 12, 2019, https://time.com/5649826/russia-nuclear-accident/
8. Vladimir Putin’s so-called missile with unlimited range is too expensive for the Kremlin – and has yet to fly farther than 22 miles, CNBC, March 22, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/22/putins-missile-with-unlimited-range-is-too-expensive-and-hasnt-flown-more-than-22-miles.html
9. Death toll rises to five after Russia test rocket explosion, The New Daily, August 9, 2019, https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/world/2019/08/09/rocket-radiation-explosion-russia/
10. Huge blasts as Russian arms depot in Siberia explodes, BBC News, August 5, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-49239060
11. UPDATED: 14 Sailors Die on Secretive Russian Nuclear Submarine; Putin Calls Incident ‘Great Loss’, USNI News, July 2, 2019, https://news.usni.org/2019/07/02/14-sailors-die-on-secretive-russian-nuclear-submarine